Erstwhile Bombay, now known as Mumbai, is a fascinating space to be in terms of its design and architecture that ranges from the 21st century modern minimalistic skyscrapers to the neo – gothic and art deco buildings. Enough has been said about the city of dreams or for the cynic where dreams get broken owing to its economic disparity, poverty, chaos, noise and pollution that can take a toll and overwhelm to a degree of despair; However there are a few things that makes one just fall in love with the city, and one of them is it’s strong art deco presence. It may be surprising to learn that Mumbai has the second largest number of art deco buildings after Miami, that is sure to pique the interest and imagination of a number of architects, artists, designers and the enthusiastic tourist.
New India Insurance Building, Mumbai © Piyush Singh
Art deco as a design form introduced in Paris, found a welcoming patron in Bombay’s architecture during the 1930’s when it became all the rage across the world. It was brought into the city by its educated and well-traveled middle class that was growing as a result of the city’s port commerce. In order to house the expanding section of this society, the Backbay Land Reclamation Scheme came into being that propelled a frenzy of building activity. The increasing demands of a new city demanded new architecture that was modern, sleek and echoed a sense of optimism, to which art deco was the answer.
New India Assurance building – carved relief © Sandra Cohen Rose https://www.flickr.com/photos/73416633@N00/2422100854/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/73416633@N00/2421248967/
Art Deco stylistically stresses on symmetry with geometric shapes and rectilinear lines. It generally represents a combination of traditional craft motifs and machine age imagery with stream lined design.
In Bombay the art deco derived influences from several genres, from new age nautical details on buildings and streamlined structures to Egyptian and Classical art with domestic images of working farmers having Greek and Egyptian features. Owing to its unique set of features this style of architecture came to be known as ‘domestic art deco,’ or ‘Bombay deco.’
Relief carved on New India Assurance building of Indian potters © Sandra Cohen Rose https://www.flickr.com/photos/73416633@N00/2421356675/
Carved relief mural from the interiors of Eros Cinema © Sandra Cohen Rose
Many of the buildings built by the Zoroastrian community adopted this chic style that stood as a symbol of modernism, affluence and power with Assyrian imagery such as that of a horse with wings spread out carved in relief on the façades of buildings. Much of South Bombay reflected this opulence and areas such as Marine Drive and Malabar Hills became synonymous with this style.
Vatcha Agiary © Colomen (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
© Sandra Cohen Rose
The first seeds of art deco design were seen in Churchgate in the mid to late 1930’s and the most visible and shining example of this design is It’s most noted, the Eros Cinema. Referring to the Greek god of love from where the name was inspired the building represented a mythical yet modern India. Located opposite the Churchgate station, it was opened in 1938, during the era of land reclamation. The design echoed the ‘streamline moderne’ style of architecture with a façade of partial red Agra sandstone and muted coloured murals of Indian architecture. The building was the first of its kind that changed the nature of Bombay’s skyline that were dotted with neo-gothic structures. Along with Regal, Liberty and New Empire, these deco buildings now constitute as mere reflection of their bygone glory, falling apart and struggling to stay open due to lack of funding and maintenance.
Eros Cinema © Sandra Cohen Rose https://www.flickr.com/photos/73416633@N00/2424216370/
Liberty cinema, that occupies a prime real estate spot in Bombay has been described by authors David Vinnels and Brent Skelly in their book ‘Bollywood Showplaces: Cinema theatres in India’ as “An exquisite jewel box of rococo decoration enhanced by a coloured lighting scheme suggesting a fairyland far away from the bustle and tumult in the streets outside.” It is now used as a venue for film festival goers rather than regular Bollywood film screenings.
Liberty Cinema © Sandra Cohen Rose https://www.flickr.com/photos/73416633@N00/2423390713/
During the late 1930’s to mid-40’s that Bombay’s art deco architecture began to extend its way further West including Marine Drive, Malabar Hill, Cumbala Hill followed by the suburbs. This ensued a cluster of residential buildings cropping up, reclaimed from the sea, all possessing the similar modern art deco style and built having to adhere to construction rules on uniformity in height and material. As a result of this planned development, a dense concentration of art deco architecture is found in Churchgate and Marine Drive.
Due to an amalgamation of various architectural styles in one condensed space, Bombay’s landscape presents a unique setting, where if one stands east of the Oval Maidan, the imposing and impressive gothic structures such as the High court, the Secretariat, the Rajabhai towers in the University of Bombay, all built during the British era can be seen. Look to West and it is a completely different picture with smaller scaled modest Art deco buildings such as the Empress Court, Green Fields, Shiv Shanti Bhavan, Rajjab Mahal, that are a reflection of the Machine Age and Futuristic design.
In the following years as time passed by, while Miami recognized its heritage and preserved its architecture, Mumbai’s art deco was largely neglected and went unnoticed by many due to the dilapidated buildings with peeling paint and a lack of recognition on the part of its people of the wonderful museum they had in their backyard.
However, in August 2015 the students of J.J. School of art and architecture under the tutelage of Professor Mustansir Dalvi, put up an exhibition recreating facades of art deco buildings that stand on the stretch if the Oval Maidan and titled it ‘Deco on the Oval.’ Referencing old images and drawings these redrawn structures along with an exhibit of a few vintage images shed light on ‘Bombay’s most loved Art-Deco Facades,’ and provided further impetus to a pre-existing case on behalf of Mumbai’s historic structures to receive UNESCO World heritage site.
© Sandra Cohen Rose https://www.flickr.com/photos/73416633@N00/2422558144/in/photostream/
Perhaps tourism might help spark some interest in these timeless buildings with art deco and architectural tours of the city initiated by private art organisations. Until that happens one can just pick up their camera and go exploring the second largest collection of art deco buildings in the world. Sometimes It might pose a bit of a challenge as one will have to peer through various trees, look past hoardings and signage, go underneath some wiring and dodge the peering eyes of guards who will not be welcoming to onlookers to see these buildings. However once you get past all of that it is rewarding to discover these architectural gems.